“June 1, 1898, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition at Omaha, Nebraska, will open its gates to the world. For five months there will be displayed the products, arts, industries and resources of the Great Trans-Mississippi region. It will for the first time reveal to the world the wealth and magnificence of the Western World.” So promised the Council Bluffs commemorative book.
The book’s introductory declares: “The United States is the grandest and greatest country on the face of the earth; Iowa is one of the greatest states in the Union; Council Bluffs is one of the finest cities in Iowa, consequently this book is devoted to one of the finest cities of one of the greatest states of the grandest country on the face of the globe. This is logically correct, and practically true.”
A corporation with a capital of $1 million would be in control of the Exposition – the management of the event in the hands of fifty directors, with an executive committee of six department managers. By direction of President William McKinley the State Department extended invitations to rulers of foreign nations inviting them to participate. Lucius Wells of Council Bluffs was one of the directors and the only one from Iowa.
The main buildings would be arranged along either side of the Grand Canal, with the Government Building standing at the west end. With the cooperation of the government and the commissioner of Indian Affairs, it was proposed to bring representatives of all Indian tribes of the United States, which would form an encampment covering many acres within or adjoining the exposition grounds.
Standing tall among the picturesque types of architecture, Greek columns, statuary depicting the growth of civilization and countless other offerings was to be a mammoth Indian tepee – the Pottawattamie wigwam – used to display the resources of Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County and as general headquarters. Circular in shape, the five-story building was to be 75 feet in diameter at the base and rising in a cone 100 feet high, well lighted and ventilated. Electric street cars would provide transportation between the two cities.
Nonpareil advertisements reflected the enthusiasm and expectations of Council Bluffs hotels – the Ogden, Newmayer, Grand and Kiel Hotels and other businesses, such as Deere Wells & Co. – promoting to country folk the joys of rolling over the country roads “with a smart rig and a good horse.”
What sort of qualified person would be chosen to represent Iowa at such an event?
Lucius Wells was born in 1845 in Rock Island County, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi. His father, also named Lucius Wells, first a farmer who later went into the logging and milling business, came from a family whose ancestors emigrated from England long before the Revolutionary War. His mother, Eunice McMurphy, was of Scotch-Irish ancestry and was a great grand-niece of Ethan Allen. They came from Vermont and New York, respectively, to Western Illinois where Lucius was born.
Lucius Wells, Jr. was educated in the public schools and attended Lombard University in Galesburg for one year. He left to go into business with Deere & Co., founded by John Deere in 1847 as the John Deere Plow Works – the pioneer of steel plow makers. The company, located in Moline, Illinois, became the largest steel plow works in the world. He worked his way up beginning as a factory worker, then as a traveling salesman and eventually as general manager before moving to Council Bluffs in 1881 to become manager of one of John Deere & Company’s “branch houses” being established by the fast-growing company.
At age 37, Wells was branch manager and part owner of the Council Bluffs firm. Deere, Wells & Co. opened November 1, 1881 – the pioneer of the many establishments of the kind whose aggregate business, 10 years later, made Council Bluffs the second largest implement center in the old Northwest, according to Wells’ 1891 biography. In 1899, Wells sold his one-third interest in the firm, moved his business to Omaha and continued on his own as a dealer in agricultural implements, carriages and gasoline engines.
Lucius Wells married Martha Wadsworth while still in Illinois. They had two children; Eunice (married A.W. Casady of Council Bluffs) and Cherrie Wells. He served on the school board for several years, was a member of the Iroquois Club – the leading democratic organization of Chicago, and the Omaha Club – a social club. In 1892, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He was one of the most prominent businessmen in the state of Iowa. Martha Wells died in 1911, Lucius in 1916. They are buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery.
The Wells family purchased the property at 624 Oakland Ave. in 1882 and lived there until 1886 when they sold it to attorney Charles Harl and his wife, Lottie. In 1887, they purchased this property along with three other lots, just up the hill from their former home. They lived here until 1907 when they sold it – again to the Harls. Wells was also involved in real estate. From 1908 through 1910, they are listed in the city directory at 134 Park Ave.,and then at 154 Grant St.
The Italianate style house was built in 1875 for local attorney Cunningham R. Scott. It was one of the earliest homes built along what is now Oakland Avenue. The nomination of the Lincoln/Fairview district to the National Register of Historic Places describes the home as likely architect designed, having a low-pitched hip roof with a bracketed eave overhang, a massive wraparound porch with full-height round columns – an early 20th century addition, prominent hood molds above the windows and doors, and a notable transom window over the front door. The brick, not originally painted, came from the North Eighth Street brickyard.
– Preserve Council Bluffs acknowledges the following sources of information for this series: National Register of Historic Places nominations, the reference department of the Council Bluffs Public Library, the auditor’s office of the Pottawattamie County courthouse, Council Bluffs Community Development Department, homeowners, family members and, for this story, Sharon Thacker, homeowner.
Mary Lou McGinn can be reached by email at email@example.com.